Asylum for West Papuans could trigger wave of boat people

Australian authorities risk setting off a wave of boat people from an impoverished Indonesian province if they accept a boatload of asylum seekers that landed on a remote peninsula this week, an expert said Thursday. A 25-meter (82-foot) boat carrying 36 adults and seven children from Indonesia's restive West Papua province was discovered Wednesday on Australia's remote Cape York Peninsula.

The group arrived carrying a banner accusing Indonesia of terrorism and genocide in West Papua, the country's easternmost province, and are expected to seek refugee status in Australia. Tony Kevin, a former Australian diplomat and visiting fellow at the ANU, said Australia granting them asylum could trigger a wave of copycat boat voyages from West Papua.

"Mainly the problem is the risk of many more seeking to emulate them (the refugees)," Kevin said. "It's a very easy crossing from West Papua to Australian territories and this is something Australian border security officials have worried about for many years."

Only about 300 kilometers (186 miles) of sea separate West Papua's eastern tip from the Cape York Peninsula. Their arrival came as Australian and Indonesian diplomats attempt to hammer out a security agreement designed to strengthen relations between the two countries and help fight regional terrorism.

Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone declined to say whether any of the group had applied for asylum, but said Australia's relationship with Indonesia would not be considered when assessing any potential claim. The boat people were undergoing health checks, Vanstone said, adding that one woman had suffered minor injuries during the group's voyage.

The group also was being interviewed by customs and immigration department officials. Single men will be sent to an immigrant detention center while family groups will be put in houses under immigration department supervision. Vanstone said Australia's relationship with Indonesia would not come into any assessment on whether or not to grant the group asylum.

"Australia has always made decisions in relation to protection claims on the basis of the merit of the claim ... rather than taking into account whether it will upset one or other of Australia's friends and allies," she said. Indonesia took over West Papua from Dutch colonial rule in 1963. Its sovereignty over the area was formalized in 1969 through a stage-managed vote by about 1,000 community leaders. Critics dismissed the poll as a sham, reports the AP. N.U.